The dangerous and tricky work of Bible translation

What it takes to bring God’s word into a new language

When Marlon Winedt says “he’s always learning” from the people he works with, it’s a big deal.

A ‘Global Translation Consultant’ working with the United Bible Societies, Marlon is an incredibly qualified and skilled man.

He’s not only proficient in Papiamentu (the Afro-Portuguese Creole tongue of his island homeland Curaçao), but also German, French, Spanish, English, Dutch and some other Creole languages. He also knows the biblical languages – Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic. And in thirty years of work, he estimates he’s overseen the translation projects of 18 to 20 different languages.

And study? Marlon has earned a PhD in theology/Bible translation, and postgraduate qualification in Bible translation, as well as a post graduate degree in linguistics.

Yet when asked about his study he quickly directs the conversation away from discussing his achievements to discussing the subject of learning.

“You’re always learning. You’re never there, really, you’re always learning and then you give what you have,” he says.

“It’s nice because you’re always trying to keep up to date with new academic stuff, but you’re always learning from your translation teams, too.

“… They’re different cultures, a different way of thinking. So, the way they look at the Bible is, of course, different to the way I look at the Bible.

“A lot of the questions they ask, the things they struggle with, it forces you – as an exegete or linguist – to look at the text in another way and to try to help them get answers. So, it is a very enriching experience, I must say.”

Translation consultants like Marlon work directly with the translators who are on the ground, providing them with the advice, direction and scrutiny required to ensure a translation is academically robust. But everyone’s role is equally important, according to Marlon.

“We learn a lot through our teams, because they are offering us something too.” – Marlon Winedt

“We, as consultants, don’t want people to think we are up here and we are helping these poor people. No. It’s a very synergistic thing, in fact.”

“We have certain skills that we are offering to them – the organisation is offering to them. But I think all of my colleagues will say we grow a lot, we learn a lot through our teams, because they are offering us something too.”

Marlon’s recently been working on a sign language translation of the Bible for people who are deaf. As a hearing person, it has forced him to analyse the text in exciting new ways.

“They [people who are deaf] have a very keen sense of features in the Bible – that’s very visual … They look at the text in such a different, refreshing way.”

Marlon gives the example of translating a passage that includes “Jesus said”. Deaf translators asked Marlon to fill it in, in terms of Jesus’ facial expression.

“So how did Jesus say it? Did he say it angry? Neutrally? Is there such a thing as neutral? Did he say it happily?” Marlon asks. “So actually, they are forcing you to, as a reading person and hearing person, to search through the text to find out – in the biblical language and in the context – how Jesus said it.”

“Of course, when Jesus said it, he had a facial expression, but we don’t know what it was! Sometimes we can find out, sometimes we can’t and it’s up to the translator to decide what in the context fits. Sometimes you just don’t know.”

Marlon says he’s found these and other questions asked by deaf translators to be “been a very revolutionary way of looking at the Bible”.

Marlon himself began as a translator before becoming a translation consultant. He’d just finished his PhD in theology/Bible translation when he heard about plans to translate the New Testament into Papiamentu, his own native or “heart” language. He immediately changed his plans so he could be involved.

“For some translators, it’s more than just tricky, it’s even dangerous to translate.” – Marlon Winedt

The fear he felt on his first day as a Papiamentu translator remains a vivid memory.

“[As a translator] you are taking responsibility to say you are going to be used by God, to bring God’s word to others – in your own language,” he responds, when asked the source of the fear.

Despite such pressure, Marlon suggests a myriad of reasons why someone may become a translator. Perhaps their church might ask them to take it on because they have a knack for language. Or they do it as an act of service to God and their own people.

Others might have some training in the craft of translation.

Marlon describes the responsibility of translation as a lifelong choice, especially for translators who continue to life with their local community. In that instance, translators can become the translation, in the minds of community members. For the rest of the translator’s life, then, they can be asked to justify decisions made by a translation team.

“You aren’t going away – people can find you, if they have criticism,” reveals Marlon. And that’s a tricky place to be when, in Marlon’s words, “translation is about tough choices”.

One of those “tough choices”, for example, is whether or not to use indigenous words for “God” in a translation. Often, early missionaries chose not to use these indigenous words because of their associations with native religious practices – sometimes even occult ones. Instead Spanish, English or French words for “God” are used in Christian practice.

Yet these indigenous words for “God”, despite their associations, still remain and are used by locals in various contexts. Plus, the Hebrew and Greek words used for “God” in original biblical texts can be the same word used for pagan gods, too.

Translators might weigh all that up and decide they want to reclaim or “revive” the indigenous word for “God” by using it in the translation – despite being criticised for the choice.

“The translator needs to negotiate acceptability by the community – whether the community will accept the translation. The translator needs to learn also to divest him or herself. Don’t take it too personal. To say, ‘Well, I did what I could do’ and people can criticise the text; they’re not criticising me.”

“For some translators, it’s more than just tricky, it’s even dangerous to translate.

“There are countries where translating the Bible is not done or it’s a dangerous thing to do because people don’t want you to translate the Bible.”

“On a spiritual level, it can be even more challenging …” – Marlon Winedt

Translations tend to take many years to complete – usually between four and nine years. At the end of the project, a translator’s paid work is complete and they need to re-enter the workforce.

“If the person does that full time, for example, for ten years, [and] the person used to be a teacher or have another job, the person now kind of has to re-invent themselves,” Marlon explains.

Translators also face spiritual challenges. They often find themselves with more biblical knowledge than pastors, elders, mentors and others in their church communities who provide them with spiritual guidance.

“On a spiritual level, it can be even more challenging because the more you work with the Bible, the more you become immune to its spiritual message,” explains Marlon. “That’s the danger of all people who study the Bible – professors; us as translation consultants – it’s a big danger to lose your own relationship with God because you work so much with the text.”

He says translation consultants try to intentionally cultivate and keep track of their own spiritual lives, and also help translators who struggle with it.

“Part of the role of translation consultant is not just technical, there’s also a pastoral element,” he says.

“I’ve worked with translators who say, ‘It has become a mechanical work, I’m doing so much linguistic analysis but the life of the Bible has kind of been sucked out in all of this brainy, analytical stuff.’”

But Marlon is confident there are ways to counter the challenge and tells translators to read another biblical book to the one they are working on.

“Don’t do your devotions in a book you are working on,” he advises.

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